Needed: a spine for Delhi government

There are two sets of rules for polluters. The rich and the powerful can pollute without fear, but the poor have to bear the brunt of their excesses and make sacrifices for the greater common good

Published: Tuesday 15 February 2000

The Delhi government's decision to re-open 372 industrial units, which were found polluting the Yamuna river, has once again demonstrated its inability to withstand even the slightest pressure. Not even when the larger interest of the people of Delhi is at stake. The step, if nothing, is highly retrogressive and the government is faced with the additional danger of being censured by the Supreme Court ( sc ) for contempt.

The step is a clear indication of the importance the government places on pollution control. The "polluter pays principle" obviously means nothing in Delhi if the polluter is part of the government's political constituency. The present backtracking also highlights that the government can only penalise the poor and the powerless. What moral authority did the government have to ban commercial vehicles more than 15 years old from the roads of Delhi, even if they were considered highly polluting? It is not that the Yamuna is less polluted than Delhi's poisonous air. The reason is that the owners and drivers of 15-year-old commercial vehicles were not considered politically important for the government. So, they had to sacrifice their livelihood for the sake of Delhi's air. So why get scared of taking another tough stand for the sake of public health?

There is a rotten smell emanating from this entire episode, and it reminds one of the dark side of Indian politics. Only when politics gets the better of public health, the politician becomes a villian of an entirely different and evil order.

As so often in the past, the government has let the culprits off the hook - this time hiding behind the recommendations of a two-member committee set up to review the claims of the factory owners. The panel had examined around 900 applications from angry owners of units and found that the owners had either kept to their word by installing effluent treatment plants (etp s) or had changed to a non-polluting trade. The bonafides of these are questionable, as the level of pollution of the Yamuna has shown no appreciable change for the better. Though 50 per cent of these requests were rejected on the spot, the committee considered some complaints to be genuine and requiring investigation. However, all the units have been asked to submit their reports to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee ( dpcc ) within 60 days on rectification of defects, trial runs, pollution levels and verification.

There are 1,142 industrial units in the small to medium-scale range that discharge untreated effluents into the river and were slated for closure by December 31, 1999. Each factory employs 10 persons on an average. The main effluent in most of these industries is acid, much of which goes into the drainage system of the city and, then, into the Yamuna. The areas in which most of the units are located are Anand Parbat, Wazirpur and Okhla, where water-polluting industries like dyeing and electroplating are concentrated.

Ever since the sc 's directive dated September 13, 1999, ordering the closure of polluting industries from November 1, the government has shown an unusual eagerness to please the powerful lobby of industrialists. Though the government ignored the November 1 deadline, it had started enforcing the standards for discharge of effluents and had already closed down over 500 units in the National Capital Region. The entire exercise was, however, undertaken only in response to constant prodding.

After the dpcc issued closure notice to the erring units, the sc had to issue a show-cause notice to chief secretary Omesh Saigal, asking him to take immediate steps and, later, a repeat of the court order issued on December 17 directed the government to ensure closure of the units. Meanwhile, the government had sought time till September 2000 to set up three common etp s and a breather till November 2000 for individual units to set up etp s. As a reconciliatory gesture, the government had even gone so far as to direct officials to adopt a humane approach while implementing the court order. It also proposes to request the court to 'give a chance' to the remaining units, which number over 600.

The muddleheadedness of the government is, to a certain extent, responsible for the ire of the industrialists because of the conflicting signals emanating from official circles. A government order had initially stated that all industrial units should have their own etp s, then an order required them to contribute money for the common effluent treatment plants ( cetp s), and, finally, after the cetp s failed to take off, once again required every unit to install its own etp s.

The lifting of the closure once again raises the question of whether the government is really committed to cleaning up Delhi's waterbodies and curbing polluting industrial units. If the present trend continues, industry will get the wrong message. Those stepping out of line will do so with impunity - sure of their ability to obfuscate and doubly sure of the impotence of the sovereign authority to enforce the law. If even judicial activism of the highest court of the land is unable to prevent a river from being destroyed, there is no hope for the honest, law-abiding citizen.

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